Library Websites Should be Smaller

The Benefits of Less
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a daring pilot and talented author, also weighed in on user experience:

“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

In some ways, libraries have been taking the opposite approach. We’ve gotten in the habit of tacking on new services and taking on new responsibilities, and many library websites can be seen as piecemeal collections of patron engagement tactics.

The problem of more
More content necessitates more design decisions and therefore more opportunity to make mistakes. Every piece of content on a website makes the site more complicated. For example, think about a single-page website with no links. The site’s architecture is really basic. Adding just one more page requires design decisions: Where should the link to the new page be? Could it be an image? Should it open in a new window? (By the way: no.)

Groups of content end up in different sections and require increasingly sophisticated architecture, labeling, navigation, and visual design. It isn’t impossible to get all of these things right, but more often than not patrons feel like they’re trying to find a needle in a haystack.

More content thins out our efforts. It sounds simple, but the more things a library tries to do, the less attention it can devote to any one thing. Without the attention they deserve, web content and services can’t be as effective as they should be.

The benefits of less
There are two ways to increase the amount of attention the bits of a website receive: either by increasing staffing and funding, or reducing the number of bits. An extreme example: imagine if your web team was only responsible for the page consisting of your library’s contact information, location, and one book recommendation per week. They’d be able to spend plenty of time on this page, testing, experimenting, and revising regularly. It would be a great page.

For years, I’ve heard talk about libraries cutting the cord on irrelevant services. Yet I haven’t heard as much discussion about which sacred web cows we can put out to pasture. This might in part be owing to the perception that a 200-page website isn’t more expensive to manage than a 50-page one. While probably true in terms of hosting fees, it isn’t otherwise true. Good content takes staff time to produce and arrange, and the navigational overhead can be a time expenditure for users.

I’m not suggesting that libraries shouldn’t try new things or add content to their sites. They should. Still, the library world needs to start a dialog about an additional way to prevent stagnation: subtraction.

How to reduce
Paring down website content certainly presents its own challenges, but determining your site’s critical tasks—the most frequent and important things people want to do there—isn’t difficult.

Ask library users. Walk around your library, or anywhere in your community, and ask, “What do you do on the library’s website?” Challenge yourself to engage up to 30 people and record their responses. Group all similar comments and rank them according to frequency. You can also put a short pop-up survey on your site asking the same question.

Another way to brainstorm the most important parts of your website is to imagine you’re building a mobile version. Given the limited screen real estate available, what parts of your site are essential?

Your site’s analytics might also help, but they can be tricky to interpret. Page hits don’t tell us much about motivation for visiting pages. They might get skipped either because the content isn’t interesting or because something is hampering findability.

While a lack of visits doesn’t necessarily mean a page isn’t valuable, it does mean that it probably won’t be missed. Use these stats judiciously. Once you’ve determined the most important things to have on your site, consider the rest nice to have but not necessary.

Shrinking pains
It’s a good idea to arrive at these conclusions collaboratively because it might not be easy for someone to hear that something they work on can’t be supported anymore. You also can’t promise staff that they’re going to have all sorts of free time once things are scaled back.

The goal here is to make your website and services the absolute best they can be. That means you’ll be spending what would be free time prototyping and testing revisions of your most important content.

This first appeared in The User Experience, a column I’m writing for LJ.

17 thoughts on “Library Websites Should be Smaller”

  1. I agree that library websites should be smaller. I constantly remind staff that most people come to our site for quick FAQ-type info. Web stats are a good place to start your evaluation. They give a good idea of popular pages. Unpopular pages should get immediate attention – can they be moved to be more visible? Or do usability testing to see where users would look for that info. If neither of those work it may be time to remove the content.
    In defense of content though – if you are looking to increase your hits or visibility on Google, most search engine marketing recommends positioning yourself as an expert to get long-tail hits from search engines. Write interesting articles on topics librarians know well (“10 easy ways to help your child learn to read”, etc.) Having a blog with some guidelines about content, how often it should be updated, and how to evaluate for usefulness might be the best way to achieve this though without populating your whole site with new pages all the time.

  2. I don’t quite agree with you! [says DLK of the large, rambling library websites :-) ]

    Seriously though – rather than saying wholesale “you should have a big|small|purple website” – I’d say figure out what your target audience wants. Not your “regular patrons.” Not your “somehow hoped-for patrons.” But your target audience (which means you need to first figure that out). And then … simply … do that.

    That might mean lots of blog posts, or it might mean a paired down website – but it really depends. Almost certainly it means that some services you do now (online or offline) should be stopped (and removed) and others started.

    But focus on that target audience.

  3. I agree about focusing on target audiences. That’s essential.

    But I’ll maintain that, no matter who the target audience is, they’ll be better served by a smaller, more efficient site that increases the wheat to chaff ratio. Saying the same thing the negative way: a website can have the info that would meet the needs of its audiences, but it’ll be harder for them to find that stuff if there’s a bunch of junk also.

    I’m guessing you’ll buy that…

    (And the super cynical side of me says that most libraries don’t do a good job figuring out their audiences (upcoming column topic!) so their sites should be small so they do the least amount of harm.)

  4. It’s essential to create user personas and do usability testing to make sure you are meeting the needs of your patrons. Aaron, I’m interested in this upcoming article about libraries not being able to figure out their audiences. Looking forward to it.
    Starting with what you would put on a mobile site is great idea too. Every time I look at our analytics I’m shocked by the numbers of people who are viewing our site on a mobile device. But I think it’s also important to keep in mind that your site is a marketing tool and the online face of your organization. Figuring out what that means without junking up the site is the challenge. And of course, the number one reason people come to our sites is to search our catalogs. I would love for them to discover another service they weren’t aware of on our site when they stop by for a quick catalog search though.

    1. Donna, you say, “And of course, the number one reason people come to our sites is to search our catalogs,” but I would ask you to challenge that assumption. How do you know? What assessments have been made recently to lead you to this conclusion?

      I’m always wary of the phrase, “of course,” because it leads to conventional wisdom thinking rather than creativity. There is absolutely a time and place for conventional wisdom, but Web pages are not the place. The phrase “of course” implies stasis, yet the Web is inherently dynamic. We may be assuming facts no longer in evidence, especially when it comes to something so quixotic and ephemeral as a Web page.

  5. I totally agree. I’ve seen way too many examples of library web pages that wanted to give you every conceivable choice. Then they have to use 10 point type to fit it all in. Henry David Thoreau told us to “Simplify, simplify,” but that thought is lost on too many web designers.

  6. Maybe we should approach our websites the way we approach weeding. I remember when I was a young Student Librarian in Seattle. Nancy Pearl swept through our branch and loaded up a cart with books she said needed to be weeded. I was shocked, but inspired. I needed to be shown how it’s done and it was an excellent lesson.
    We have the skills. Some places of our site we need to approach like collection development librarians. Others we need to look at with the eyes of an archivist.

  7. I think the idea of thinking about what you would include on a mobile version of your site is perfect. To make a good mobile site, you have to not only limit the options but also think about good usability. If you want to see an academic library site that is simple and elegant, check out the FSU mobile site at http://www.lib.fsu.edu/m/. They have clearly thought through what users want and made it very easy to find.

  8. I think we’d all think that smaller, and simpler, but then something new comes out in the social networking sphere, or a new service, new databases, how do we present them all, make it all easy to find, without cluttering up the website? Everyone runs into this problem. Even drop down menus can get to be too much of a good thing.

  9. Agreed, especially:

    “The more things a library tries to do, the less attention it can devote to any one thing. Without the attention they deserve, web content and services can’t be as effective as they should be.”

    I can imagine that, with thousands of media and documents, it’d be tempting to increase the amount of information, links, etc. available (or at least searchable) on a website.

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